Sunday, November 23, 2008

Class of 2005

(Note: I know the 2005 draft had some phenomenal players. I'm only focusing on 3.)

A young man stands in front of a bathroom mirror in an Ottawa hotel room. He peers at himself as he smoothes his dark brown hair down, then tries to make the ends curl up. He does this repeatedly, talking to an unseen reporter as he does. He is already dressed; his lime green dress shirt looks freshly pressed; a green silk tie is knotted perfectly. He admits feeling nervous. He stops to pick up a can of hair spray, revealing blond streaks in the dark hair. He sprays about a third of the can on his hair, then tries valiantly to curl the ends up again.
In another room at the same hotel, two young men lounge. They are as relaxed as the first teen is keyed up. Both are dressed in shorts and tee-shirts. One lies on a bed, while the other pokes his head out from the bathroom, wielding a razor. They are arguing, good naturedly, about who makes a tidier roommate. The one with the razor makes a comment that sends his roommate off into a fit of hysterical laughter.
These three are among thousands who have waited their entire young lives for this day, and the moment that will either propel them on to the next phase of their quest for hockey greatness, or send them home to think hard about a future that doesn’t involve pro hockey. All three of the featured boys know they will go in the first round, but only one knows his exact fate.
Sidney Crosby has known for weeks, maybe years, that he will be the Number One pick this year. He’s definitely known for weeks where he’s going. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the lottery to pick first and they’ve made it clear that they fully intend to do what everyone expects, and make Sid the newest Penguin.
Sidney Crosby, Rimouski Oceanic

Crosby’s roommate, Jack Johnson, and Benoit Pouliot, the teen fussing with his hair, aren’t so sure where their futures lie. For them, everything is uncertain, even what order in which they’ll be drafted. The only thing that’s certain is that they have the talent to go in the Top 5.
But how did they get here?
This is where their stories take interesting turns.
Jack Johnson grew up in Detroit, a great place for any American kid wanting to play hockey to live. He already had the hockey genes; his father was a former NHL’er. If adding the legends of Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman or the Red Wings’ amazing history weren’t enough to motivate a young hockey player, then he should hang up his skates. Jack soaked it all in and it showed in the way he played. His education continued at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota, where he met Crosby, who would become his teammate and best friend. As (the team’s only) sophomores, the two helped the team win a national championship.
Jack Johnson, USA Hockey

Jack’s free time was spent taking part in hockey camps and further honing his skills with the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. Also during this time, he helped the U.S. Under-18 team win a silver medal at the 2004 World Championships. The hard charging defenseman compares his style to that of Scott Stevens or Scott Niedermayer. He comes to the draft with quite a reputation. Sports Illustrated calls him “one of the most well-rounded and revered American defensemen to come along in the past decade.” Pretty high praise, but where would this put him in the draft? A few hours would tell.
Benoit Pouliot’s path began at home, in St. Isidore, Ontario. He was introduced to the game by his dad Sylvain, who coached Benoit and his two brothers in hockey during the winters and baseball in the summers. By his own admission, Benoit grew into a tall, skinny kid. But his skill and the promise of talent yet to be revealed intrigued the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves enough to pick him in the 11th round of the OHL draft in 2002. He attended the Wolves’ training camp the first two summers after being drafted, but the team sent him home both times. The second time he came home, he received devastating news. His father’s leukemia, which had been in remission, was back. But Sylvain urged Benoit to keep pursuing his dream. Benoit played most of the 2003-2004 season with his brother’s team, the Hawkesbury Hawks of the CJHL. In February of 2004, the Sudbury Wolves called Benoit to join the team for a couple of games. Benoit remembers his father telling him to take advantage of the opportunity and show the team just what he could do. By this time, Sylvain was very sick and basically living out his last days at home, with family. Benoit played his first game with Sudbury on February 13, 2004. He took his father’s advice and gave it all he had. That night, Benoit scored his first goal in the OHL. He called his mom afterward, and asked her to share the news with his dad. His mother, Diane, shares what happened next.
Benoit Pouliot, Sudbury Wolves

“I told him about the goal and he looked at me and said, ‘I knew it.’ Those were the last words he spoke to me.”

Sylvain Pouliot died the next day.
Benoit channeled his energy into hockey. He gained weight and muscle. He played several more games with Sudbury in the 2004 season. He tore up the OHL the next year, leading the league in rookie scoring, helping the Wolves get to the playoffs and taking home the “Rookie of the Year” trophy. His play had improved so much in such a short time, his style drew comparisons to Vincent Lecavalier, and he entered the 2005 draft ranked Number 2 by the “International Scouting Services”, right behind Sidney Crosby.
Which brings us to July 30, 2005 and the NHL Entry Draft.

Sid went first, to the Pens. No surprise.
Bobby Ryan from the OHL (Owen Sound Attack) went Number 2, to Anaheim.
Sid’s roommate, Jack Johnson, went third, to the Carolina Hurricanes. He would later be traded to the L.A. Kings because he wanted to play college hockey for a couple of years before making the jump to the NHL. The ‘Canes wanted someone who could play immediately.

With the fourth pick, the Minnesota Wild chose Benoit Pouliot. And maybe his lime green shirt and green tie served as an omen. The colors perfectly complemented the red and green of the Wild sweater he pulled over his so carefully-coiffed head.
Talented goaltender Carey Price rounded out the Top 5, going to the Montreal Canadiens.

The requisite photo shoot followed the draft selection. Photographers snapped the players in a variety of poses.

Sidney Crosby and Jack Johnson fulfilled a promise they made to each other in high school- standing side by side dressed in their NHL best.

Benoit beamed, no longer seeming to mind that his carefully styled hair was mussed.

Their roads since that July day in 2005 have also taken different turns.

Sid joined the Penguins right away and has held his own, to say the least.

Jack spent two years playing NCAA hockey with the University of Michigan, before joining the L.A. Kings and making an immediate impact. He’s currently nursing a torn labrum and itching to get back on the ice.

Jack MF Johnson

Benoit spent the first two years after being drafted playing mainly for the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, although he made a number of appearances in the Wild lineup. He has been a solid part of the team since last season and faces a solid future with Minnesota.

Somewhere, his father Sylvain is smiling and saying, “I knew it.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Puck by Any Other Name

I was watching the Penguins/Islanders game recently when a name caught my attention. “Richard Park” the announcer said, referring to an Islander player. Immediately, my interest was piqued. “Park” is commonly a Korean surname. I am half-Korean and spent my formative years in South Korea with my mother while my dad did his duty for Uncle Sam in Vietnam for 6 years. My mother was keen on making sure I kept up with my Korean heritage. Hence, even now, decades later, I still speak the language and know and respect the culture. And I cook a mean bulgogi.

But I digress.

I became interested in Richard Park because as long as I’ve watched hockey, I don’t remember hearing any Asian names. So, like any self-respecting nosy person, I started digging for more. And I came up with some interesting info. Richard, I learned, was born in South Korea and raised in the US. I also learned he is the second Korean-born player in the NHL. (more on the first Korean-born player just ahead). He was drafted in 1994 by my favorite team- the Pittsburgh Penguins. I did not know this and my only excuse is that I stopped watching NHL hockey for several years (between 1990 and 2000) for reasons I’d rather not go into here. Richard bounced around from team to team , marking a measure of success with each, before landing with the Islanders in 2006. Since then, he seems to have grown, both as a player and a humanitarian. Last season, the Islanders presented him with the Bob Nystrom Award, which is awarded to the Islander who “best exemplifies leadership, hustle and dedication.” This year, Park sports the “A” and from what I can see, is living up to it.
After reading up on Richard, I searched through team rosters to see if I could find any other Asian players. I found two, including one I’ve liked for years but never realized he had Asian blood.

Paul Kariya's mother has Scottish blood. His father is Japanese and sports quite a life history. His grandparents were sent to an internment camp in BC during World War II. His father was born there. The family doesn’t talk much about it and by his own admission, Paul was raised more Canadian than Japanese. He and one of his sisters attended a Japanese school for a while to honor their grandmother but the rest of their lives were spent more or less immersed in sports. I read that Paul nearly gave up hockey to pursue golf and join others in breathing a sigh of relief that he didn’t. I learned that Paul is more revered in Japan than stars like Wayne Gretzky. I also learned he detests labels and does not like to talk about himself. That’s okay. He speaks volumes on the ice. After years with Anaheim, he landed with the Blues. From what I read, the transition was not that pleasant and he is no longer a favorite with many Ducks fans.

Paul Kariya is a favorite player of the next Asian player I found.

Devin Setoguchi is also half-Japanese/half-Canadian. He was born and raised in Alberta. Like Paul Kariya, Devin’s family has been touched by a shameful part of history: his grandparents were also sent to an internment camp during World War II. Unlike Paul, hockey runs through Devin’s blood. His father Dale played junior hockey in Alberta (he was the AJHL’s MVP in 1979), spent a year playing in Japan and still plays in a senior hockey league.

It’s kind of funny. I identify as much with Paul Kariya as I do with Richard Park. I have straddled two cultures all my life, like Paul (and probably Devin, too). Unlike Paul, my mother insisted that I not only know my heritage, but live it too. When you look at me, you won’t automatically think I’m Asian, yet speak to me in Korean and I will respond. I’ve had fun standing in line or shopping in a Korean store here in the Seattle area, eavesdropping on others as they chatter away, not realizing that a “hapa” (half Asian) is standing nearby who can understand almost every word. My mother taught me to be as proud of my Korean heritage as I am of being American, or being German-Irish on my dad’s side. We lived in Germany for 6 years and traced his mother’s family to a town outside Cologne. I know how his grandfather arrived in NYC from Ireland in 1910. But ask me about my background and I will veer more toward the Korean side because it was so pervasive. My older brother and sister are full Korean. They and our mother became American citizens in 1971. I still remember the ceremony. My oma (mom) chose the American name “Lee” to complement her Korean name “Hyon”. My unee (sister) chose the name “Sharon” to go with “Kyong”. My opa (brother) chose the name “Richard” to sit alongside his Korean name “Byong.”

This brings me back to Richard Park. I don’t know his Korean first name, but I do know the given name of the first Korean-born player in the NHL. It’s Chison Paek.

His parents gave him the Anglo name “Jim” when he was three, so he could integrate into Canadian society a little more easily. Call him Jim or call him Chison, one thing is very clear. He picked up hockey like a native! By the time he reached Juniors, his parents were such fans they attended 106 of 108 games he played with the Oshawa Generals. His first NHL team is my favorite: the Pittsburgh Penguins. He joined them in 1992 as the Pens rode a high from winning their first Stanley Cup. He arrived in time for the 92 playoffs. We all know what happened next. (for non-hockey fans: The Penguins won their second Stanley Cup championship)

Jim Paek left the Pens in 1994 and played with the Los Angeles Kings and Ottawa Senators before ending his career in the IHL and joining the coaching ranks. Last year, he returned to Pittsburgh, but this time, he was on the Red Wings bench. He is part of the coaching staff of the team’s Grand Rapids affiliate and spent last year’s Stanley Cup finals working with the Red Wings’ extra players.

What is the meaning of this blog? I really don’t know. I guess when I look back at it, the message I see is that it doesn’t matter where you come from. If you’ve got the talent and desire, you can make it in the NHL. You don’t have to be a Russian powerhouse, a Finnish or Swedish superstar. You can be from a country like South Korea, and make it to the Stanley Cup.

In fact, you can make ANY dream come true, if you believe in yourself.